[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the challenges, benefits, and limitations of humanizing our historical icons.
As I was researching Tuesday’s post on the current film Selma, I learned that James Bevel, the Civil Rights leader who spearheaded the Selma march among many other efforts, was arrested a few years ago and convicted of committing incest with one of his daughters. I struggled with whether or not to include that detail as part of my reference to Bevel, but decided not to—partly because the conviction was more than 40 years after the Selma march, and so didn’t feel relevant to that historical moment; and partly for the more complicated reason that I was worried it would overshadow the more important points I was trying to make. Certainly I don’t think Bevel’s personal issues and crimes merit the same attention as the Selma march or the Civil Rights Movement; but on the other hand, are we doing a disservice to the activists and leaders of those events if we idealize them, pretend that they weren’t complex humans like all the rest of us?
An argument that we are, and that we need to engage with the most human as well as the most heroic sides to such leaders and icons, can be found at the heart of one of the most acclaimed American plays in recent years, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (2009). Hall’s play, which opened first in London and then made its Broadway debut with mega-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, depicts the final night in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, imagining him engaged in an extended conversation, flirtation, and eventually inspiration with a Memphis hotel maid. The play offers a warts-and-all portrayal of its fictionalized King, including not only light details such as his smoking habit and smelly feet but more serious ones such as complex relationship with his wife Coretta and his supposed womanizing. Hall’s script ultimately returns to a more idealized depiction of King as an orator, leader, and philosopher, and it’s certainly possible to argue that such ideals are more believable when paired with the more complex and human details. Indeed, I’ve made precisely the same case in this space when it comes to towering American figures like Thomas Jefferson.
So why do I feel that it’s a bit more problematic to portray such complex and human details for King, as Hall’s play does? For one thing, I’d say that timing is an issue—by setting her play on the eve (literally) of King’s assassination, Hall seems to be offering a culminating reflection on his life and work; King of course did not know it was his last night (although he was well aware of death threats, as the play notes), but the audience does, and such overarching reflections feel inevitable in that case. And I’ll be honest, I don’t think Hall’s less ideal details merit much of a place in those broad reflections on King’s life and work. And for another, and even more salient thing, I would argue (as I did in Monday’s post) that there are many hugely significant aspects of King’s career and perspective that we don’t yet remember well, particularly when compared to such widely and deeply remembered figures as the Founding Fathers. I don’t have any problem with a more humanized King eventually entering our collective memories, but I’d say much more of the historical and, yes, heroic sides to the man should take their place there first.
Last MLK story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?
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